Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Review of Sing Street

Disappointing Irish teen band film – so transparently a wish-fulfilment fantasy that it didn’t really hold my attention. Nice premise – posh kid gets sent to tough school because his parents are broke, survives and attracts cute (slightly older) girl by forming a band with his mates. But if we are expecting a teen version of The Commitments, that’s not what we get. The band are brilliant from the very start. He writes brilliant songs with no apparent effort. There’s no conflict within the band, they all practice regularly at one of the band member’s house while his mum bring them tea and snacks, the pretty girl is snaffled straight away – even the lead’s violent school-bully nemesis is won over and becomes the band’s roadie. Too good be true, and too good to be an interesting film.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Review of Mustang

A beautiful, sad film about five young girls growing up in a rural community in North Eastern Turkey. Though the reviews seem to present this as a ‘coming of age’ story, it’s something rather nastier than that implies. The girls are brought up by their conservative grandmother and their patriarchal uncle, both of whom are very conservative and apply increasingly strict controls over their lives. The house is gradually turned into a prison from which a family-arranged marriage is the only sanctioned escape, and the girls respond to this in different ways. There are a few light moments when they occasionally break out, but it becomes increasingly dark and claustrophobic. A good advert for mainstream feminism and modern liberal urban life; almost the only decent man in the film is the gay truck delivery man befriended by the girls (they do refer to him as ‘queer’, but it’s only the slightly unusual facial hair that marks him out).

It's a Turkish-German co-production, with great music. It also has a sort of German look to it, which set me to wondering whether that was measurable. Are there national (or personal) styles in film making that would be revealed by statistical analysis – length of static or panning or zooming shots, length and angle of close-ups, time between cuts, etc? I wonder whether there has been any work on this. It seems so obvious that I can’t help thinking someone must have done it.

Anyway Mustang (I don’t know why it’s called that – a Turkish cultural reference that is lost on me?) is a good but sombre film.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Review of Dr Strangelove

Somehow I've never got round to seeing this, so I was grateful for the chance to watch it in the Middle Floor at Springhill.

It's horrible, though not in a bad way. Although it's billed as a black comedy there aren't many laughs. It's mainly a believable story about how a rogue air force general goes nuts and starts the slide towards a nuclear war, which then can't be stopped by any human agency.

It's very anti-military, and also quite anti-American. The Russians are largely invisible - the Soviet premier is on the end of a phone line but we don't hear his voice, and the Russian ambassador is mainly decent, though he does take pictures of everything in the secret war room. The Americans are bureaucratic, at least slightly mad, and sex-crazed. I don't think a film like this could be made now, though I suppose 'In the Loop' wasn't all that far off, particularly in the way it portrayed the relationship between the sensible but ineffectual Brits and the crazy but powerful Americans.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Review of Electricity

I didn’t know anything about this – just found it on BBC iPlayer while looking for something to do, but it was really rather good. It’s about a Lancashire girl with severe epilepsy searching for her lost brother in the London underclass, and it’s beautifully shot and very well acted, with lots of emotional depth. 
There are a few implausible plot developments (everyone she meets is really nice to her), and she seems to have an enormous cool wardrobe contained within her small wheelie suitcase; in fact she dresses rather too well for the character she is supposed to be playing.
But it’s quality British drama all the same. Lots of stuff about how people can manage their conditions, and about how they are treated as they do so - something I hadn't thought about much for years, but this made me think about it again.
I was sort of puzzled why it appears to be set in the North East when it’s not in London, even though she’s from Lancashire. Maybe that was explained somewhere and I missed it.

Review of 'Miles Ahead'

Not a terrible film, but not a great one either, and Miles deserves better. This is not a full musician biopic, so it misses out on lots of the familiar ‘struggle to be excellent’ themes. Instead it focuses on the fallow period of five years when Miles wasn’t recording or performing; the earlier years are done by flashback. We see some of his early performances, and so on, as recollections. The present – the time when the film’s main narrative is taking place – is more about guns, shoot-outs, car chases and drug deals. 
This means that there isn’t enough about the music; for me the best bits were where Don Cheadle is playing Miles working with other musicians. There’s nothing wrong with the acting – Cheadle acts well, and if he can’t actually play the trumpet (maybe he can?) he can certainly act trumpet playing.Ewan McGregor's fictional Rolling Stone journalist is quite good too.
Just as Miles makes his comeback and starts playing again the film ends – not before time, because it’s quite long, and the car chases got on my nerves. But I’m sorry it ended where it did, and that there wasn’t more about the creativity rather than about the tortured-ness of it all.
Watched on the cinema screen in a nearly empty Holloway Odeon.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Review of 'I Married a Communist' by Philip Roth

This is one of the good Roth books (I really hate some of them) – well written, and with several important subjects addressed; McCarthyism, the failure of the American Left, and relationships between people with…um…issues.

Still, it’s a mixed bag. It has a weird structure, with a youngish narrator being told most of the events by an older man recalling them…only the narrator was there for some of the narrative so can provide his own perspective – and sometimes it becomes hard to remember who is talking or what they are saying. It’s a bit muddled and confusing, and not strictly necessary.

It starts out exploring the impact of the blacklist on people’s lives, and the impulses that drove good people into first the Henry Wallace Progressive movement and then to the Communist Party. It covers well the fine impulses that drove people there, and also the sheer misery of the CP’s twists and turns and what they meant for those people. It explains how the New Dealers and liberals were the real target of the red-baiters, and how much nasty score-settling went on.

But two thirds of the way it seems to change tack and sentiment; the liberal and communist characters are suddenly driven not by personal or political conviction but by their own emotional flaws. Some of this is revelation of the plot, and some of it feels like Roth changed his mind and started to write a different book.

And the portrayal of the mutually destructive relationship between the main protagonist and his wife, and her previous destructive relationships with men and with her daughter, are really horrible. It’s put into the mouths of those characters who are generally reliable and insightful witnesses, so we are supposed to take it as a true and honest account.

This is just misogyny, spiced up with some racial and class awkwardness. The knowledge that this is really about Roth’s relationship with Claire Bloom, and that many of the facts map on to the real story, makes it skin-crawling.

At the end Roth brings it back to the historical events covered in American Pastoral – the failure of liberalism in the face of Black-led riots and urban degeneration. It’s all hopeless and depressing, and the moral is that those who pursue political or civil goals based on the possibility of change are fools who waste their own time and put themselves and those they care about in harm’s way. There is some ‘bracketing’ of the view, but the argument against it which is offered doesn’t feel strong or deeply felt.

Very painful to read much of the time, although it is a mostly good book.

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Review of 'The Wolf of Wall Street'

Hard to know how to review this. It's much too long, for a start. Jordan Belfort is too disgusting a person with whom to spend three hours - doesn't Scorsese know how to indicate that time passes without...it actually having to pass? The film does show how nasty the crowd around him and his brokerage company was, but it's mostly in terms of their moral depravity - drugs and hookers. There isn't much sense that what they in business terms was wrong, and had victims - just that it was against the rules. And Belfort is portrayed as someone with his own moral code, that he stuck too - he never ratted on his real friends, the guys from his neighbourhood that he recruited to run the company with him. (In this he is rather like the Mafia types in Scorsese's Goodfellas; maybe that's the best way to think about Wall Street, as just another organised crime gang.) Even when he's wearing a wire because he has become a cooperative witness, he takes risks to indicate to them that he is doing so - though inexplicably that doesn't seem to have any consequences. He still only serves three years, in a nice prison with tennis courts.

That's the message of the whole film, really, that this stuff doesn't have consequences. His marriage is wrecked, mainly by his drug and hookers habits - but he didn't seem to care much about any of that anyway. After his imprisonment he's still giving motivational lectures on selling. Of course, it would be wrong for this to have a happy ending, with justice being served and the evil-doers getting their just desserts. That isn't what happens in real life, and it would be implausible to tell a financial story that ended that way. There is a touch of consolation in the familiar Hollywood theme that the rich and powerful aren't any more happy than the rest of us, but even that is not really carried through. A certain kind of young man seeing this film would think of it as a recruiting commercial for the financial services industry.

Monday, April 04, 2016

Review of 'Frozen'

My kids were grown up by the time this came out, and they are possibly of the wrong gender too, so I never got to see this. This weekend we decided that since so many little girls have grown up with it, it must be a cultural reference point, and we ought to see it anyway. So we watched it from a DVD in the Middle Floor at Springhill Cohousing.

It was much, much better than I was expecting. The merchandise from the film is of course aimed at providing stuff to buy for the little-girl fans. But the film itself is quite dark, and touches on some quite heavy issues - the things that are never talked about in families, what it feels like to have an older sibling grow away from you, having powers (feelings) that you can't control. The love between sisters is a major theme and well handled. Even the silly snowman character, who is unaware that his enjoyment of warmth will bring about his own demise, brings up some stuff about mortality.

It's also worth noting that it comprehensively trashes the idea that you will know true love when you find it - and I was pleased to see that the worst baddie doesn't look or sound like a villain at all, at least for most of the film. We are as taken in as the characters in the film.

It's great the way it engages with Norse and Sami mythology, and the look of it is really great - though there are goofy comic characters, and the marshmallow monster was lame and not frightening, some of the others are well drawn and wouldn't look out of place in Studio Ghibli steampunk. I particularly liked the way that the ships looked, and the vision of frozen Oslo. The ice storm effects, and the way that the ships crash about towards the end, are very effective.

Interesting that some of those who watched it with us, and who had seen it several times before, felt the need to disparage it as soppy, even though they clearly wanted to watch it again.

The poster above is the soppiest version - there were others which looked darker, and which emphasise the relationship between the film and the Hans Christian Andersen story, 'The Snow Queen', on which it is based.